Life in Recovery: What Mental Health Awareness Month Means to Me

Mental Health Awareness Month Graphic

As Mental Health Awareness Month, May is always a great opportunity to reflect on how far I’ve come — and how hard I’ve worked — on my recovery and mental health journey.

At ten years sober, I am an unrecognizable version of the lost soul I was back then. I used to feel dark and depressed. But today, however, life has color, and I want to be here — no matter what life throws at me.

As the third year of the pandemic takes its toll on our mental health, I believe it’s critically important to do everything I can to promote my mental well-being. Hopefully, by sharing, I can try to identify, empathize, and support others who may be struggling with their own mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month.

Why Is Mental Health Awareness Month Important?

Therapist holding patient's hands showing sympathyMental Health Awareness Month was founded by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. NAMI is dedicated to bettering the lives of the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Every May, NAMI raises awareness about mental health, fights stigma, provides support and education, and advocates for policies to ensure support for people with mental illness and their families.

This year NAMI’s Mental Health Awareness Month campaign is “Together for Mental Health.” As the number of Americans struggling with mental illness increases, we need to work together to advocate for improving the mental health care system.

To get involved, you can share your story, help spread the message about mental wellness, and get involved in NAMI’s advocacy efforts. Visit www.nami.org for more information.

What Mental Health Awareness Month Means to Me

To me, recovery is mental health. By sharing my story, I hope to do my part in raising awareness, fighting stigma, and advocating for better rights for others with substance use disorders.

Initially, recovery wasn’t about mental health. It was about saving my life from the toxic effects of copious amounts of alcohol. The last time I drank, I had such horrific alcohol poisoning that I couldn’t move off the bathroom floor for two days. While that wasn’t the first-time alcohol had made me violently sick, it was the last. I knew I needed to find recovery and am eternally grateful I did.

Side note: It is incredibly dangerous to detox from alcohol alone, and you should always do so under medical supervision.

In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) rooms, they say that the recovery process is like peeling back layers of an onion. “More will be revealed,” they explain. Initially, I found AA a bit woo-woo, but as I’d tried to get sober alone, and failed, I knew I needed to try something new.

And so, sayings and all, I stuck around, and I did what was suggested. It worked. Days of sobriety became months of sobriety. Several months into that recovery journey, I started to finally see the revelations found in sobriety.

Around two or three months in recovery, when the novelty of continuous sobriety started to wear off, I did begin to feel deeply depressed. I was exhausted all the time and just wanted to eat bread and cake. I had zero motivation. Even going to a meeting felt like an enormous challenge.

However, I started to see that my drinking habits were probably exasperated by undiagnosed depression. After visiting my doctor — who confirmed that I was indeed depressed — I started to take medication.

The Beginning of An Ongoing Self-Discovery

My journey to mental wellness did not end after taking meds. I wish, but that just wasn’t the case. Over the next 10 years, I continued to discover parts of my mental health that contributed to my addiction.

Around five years in recovery, I moved to a different country. It was perhaps the bravest thing I’d done in my life. And while it was thrilling, it took a great toll on my body and mind. I was struggling with exhaustion again and bouts of extreme anxiety. My doctor recommended therapy and so I went.

Therapy began revealing layers of my psyche. My therapist told me I had complex posttraumatic stress disorder. I’m not alone as a person in recovery with a PTSD diagnosis. Trauma is part of many of our stories. Studies show that 80-90 percent of people in recovery have experienced some kind of trauma.

Working with a trauma therapist revealed a series of childhood and early life traumas. My therapist suspected these traumas were a major reason I had self-medicated for so many years. Drinking helped me to escape the dysregulation and constant feeling of being unsafe in my body.

Once I became aware of the trauma, I spent the next few years going through therapy and doing things to improve my mental health, including:

  • Regular exercise
  • Weekly therapy
  • Time outside in the sun
  • Cycling everywhere
  • Making friends with others who prioritized mental health
  • Ending relationships detrimental to my mental health
  • Learning to set boundaries
  • Taking medication
  • Visiting my doctor regularly
  • Eating nutritious foods
  • Drinking lots of water
  • Maintaining my recovery

While not every day was plain sailing, overall, I felt that my mental health was in the best shape of my life. That acted as a kind of springboard to think about other things I wanted to achieve. My writing career took off, and I bought my first home. I wanted more. After a lot of contemplation, I applied for graduate school and was offered a place in a competitive program. My confidence soared, and my mind felt alive with the possibility of a fulfilling and exciting future. I didn’t hesitate to accept.

That was in January 2020, three months before the pandemic. As an introvert who worked from home, I wasn’t that phased by the pandemic and decided to move forward with graduate school. Classes were remote, and I relished the learning opportunity.

Nobody Said Recovery and Sobriety Would Always Be Easy

Additional Reading:
couple arguing during the early stages of recovery.
Sober and Mad at the World: Dealing with Anger in Early Recovery

However, two months into graduate school, my mom suddenly and unexpectedly died. It was like the pandemic caught up with me and converged with the gravity of my loss. I felt like I had been hit with a ton of bricks. The years of positive mental health packed up and left, and I felt a tsunami of grief every day. But I had to carry on with school. Otherwise, I’d need to retake the semester.

The day before she died, my mom told me to focus all my energy on school, so that’s what I did. I packaged my grief into a neat, compartmentalized box and carried on with school for the next year. Anyone who’s experienced a great loss knows that you cannot avoid grief. It comes out through depression, sadness, a grave sense of loss, a constant panic about anyone else dying, extreme anxiety, and disbelief of the new reality.

After 18 months into grad school, my world began to crumble. I couldn’t concentrate, everything felt overwhelming, assignments took forever, I was constantly anxious, and I felt like I had zero emotional regulation. Every day was an emotional rollercoaster with my poor partner, and I’d find myself sitting at my desk for two hours with zero recollection of doing anything.

Why Giving Up on My Mental Wellness Wasn’t an Option?

Fortunately for me, I continued to focus and work on my mental health — although it didn’t feel like it at the time — by attending weekly therapy. And more was revealed to me.

I explained the symptoms to my therapist, assuming she’d tell me it was grief or chronic stress. She was surprised I hadn’t received a recent memo. She had diagnosed me with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. After some follow-up questions, she confirmed the diagnosis.

While I was shocked, I had never felt so seen. ADHD explained why school had been so hard in childhood, and why I struggled in relationships, and it gave me clarity about my desire to be constantly on the go. Most of all, though, it explained the cluster of other mental illnesses: anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder.

Knowing what I know now, it all made sense. Reflecting on my genetics, I saw that multiple people in my immediate family had ADHD. Between genetics and severe childhood trauma, it’s a perfect storm for developmental and learning disorders, as well as substance use disorders.

In my case, I believe the ADHD came first, and I used alcohol and drugs to cope. Plus, that was the coping strategy within my family, so it was only natural that I too would try to cope through substances.

Why My Story (and Stories Like It) Are Important During Mental Health Awareness Month?

Staring out into the sunset reflecting on their life in recoveryTo me, mental health is a commitment to the process of recovery and all that it reveals. Through the process of recovery and sustained sobriety, I was able to confront the co-occurring condition of both my drinking and mental illness. The greatest challenge was taking that first step to getting sober.

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